Sunday, August 22, 2004

Civility, Christians, and Politics
In light of my mood over the weekend (see 2 previous posts), I thought it would be a good time to finally get around to this.

Our good friend Joel Snider has written a column on the topic of civility in public discourse. I don't really disagree with the heart of it, and it sounds like the kind of request for moderate tone in debate I would make myself, or at least try to make of myself, the last angry 2 days notwithstanding. But something about it leaves me uncomfortable. Here's a snippet:
Bitter words spoken during a campaign are not easily forgotten when the election is over. And I am not talking about words between candidates. Rather, I am talking about words between neighbors who supported different candidates.

This trend is embarrassing because some of the people who move us in this direction, some of the people who use this tactic, are also people who profess the most loudly to be Christians.

In my Bible, Paul says, "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus." I have a hard time thinking many of the comments made are done "in the name of the Lord Jesus."

I doubt we can change the political process or the trend of the nation. But we can refuse to contribute to the decline of public discourse.
Insofar as what he's really saying, kindly, is that Christians can be the biggest dunderheads and jerks in public debate, and are making a mistake by, in the name of Christ, trying to score points emulating a ratings-driven media setting that rewards rhetorical aggression, I agree. The Crossfire/Hardball/Bill O'Reilly approach does indeed seem to ultimately make Hatfields and McCoys out of regular folks who have regular disagreements in a way that hardly epitomizes Christian empathy. Understanding the mindset of people you disagree with certainly works better if the goal is learning to love and communicate with them, rather than learning to tear them apart and discredit them.


Isn't there a danger of losing the Christian voice--that of compassion and responsibility for those who have the least--under a determination to argue public policy kindly? Sometimes, doesn't the prophetic voice of the church have to be loud and confident and forceful? And wouldn't it be nice if those who believe that vision has more to do with economic fairness and safety nets, commitment to non-violent solutions to international disputes, and good stewardship of the Earth spoke as forcefully as those who think being Christian is all about condemning homosexuality and outlawing abortion?

What if Dr. King had, in the name of agreeable neighborhoods, avoided confrontational language in arguing for civil rights, the way that moderate ministers have stayed away from offering a religious framework for welfare policy, or war-making? When was the last time you heard a minister argue for universal health care in a strong enough way that any news media would hear them and relay the message? When was the last time a legislator was afraid to cut taxes on the wealthy for fear of being pummeled by the parables of Jesus from his Christian constituents?

We don't always control what's done in the name of institutions we hold dear, or the arena in which they must be defended. For the last 30 years in this country, "religious issues" have been named and controlled by right-wing radical moralists, who have gained considerable political power in the process. It's true that most of the rest of the God-fearing church-goers, those not right-wing radical moralists, are turned off by strident debate. And it's true that the prevalence of strident debate in our society is not good for civil unity. But the legacy of the Christian voice in America will continue to be the spouting of dunderheads and jerks until ministers and proud Christians who care about important issues decide to join the debate, where it's happening, even if that requires a public denunciation of fundamentalists; denouncing them not just for how mean and power-hungry they are, and not just once they're crushing you, but for the mistaken substance and direction of their positions. They might have to be interrupted.

Can this be done without ever being remotely rude or caustic to get a word in edge-wise? These days, probably not. I have friends who don't even believe me when I tell them there are Southern Baptists who are not hateful Republicans. If word is going to get out, if reasonable Christian leaders are going to avoid the fate of being the proverbial unheard tree falling in the forest, they might need to learn an appropriate insult or 2, or develop the capacity to interrupt a creep every now and then.

I'm all for soft-spoken argument, taking the high-road, listening, understanding, empathy, reaching for common ground, and civil disputes among adversaries, but not at the cost of ceding all terms of debate, which is what most (white) ministers of good intention have done. Christians certainly need not exhibit the worst of the behavior, as many do, but I'm afraid that "refusing to participate in the decline of public discourse" will require refusing to participate in public discourse at all. And that's unacceptable.

I'm not saying that's what Joel is saying. But that is the discomfort I am left with after reading his piece, and thinking about everyone trying to get along. I'm afraid that by the time reasonable church leaders of good will get done waiting for the civility bandwagon to fill up, the church will have lost all claim to relevance in truly important ethical battles, if they haven't already (slippery slope?). I have already begun assuming we'll have to fight on without them, and doesn't it sound like he's already given up on "changing the political process or the trend of the nation"? I hope I'm wrong.

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